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This year's Fort Lauderdale Film Festival kicks off with a week on South Beach

The past month or so hasn't been good for the local film scene. The death of the venerable Alliance Cinema in South Beach was a decided blow to independent film programming in South Florida. Combined with a few months without much film festival activity or many special screenings, the area's indie scene looked downright barren.

But now cinephiles may brighten with the return of the Fort Lauderdale Film Festival and a full slate of premieres, part of an onslaught of indie features scheduled to hit the screens of more and more festivals that seem to stretch out across most months. Just what is going on here? Why so many independent feature films? And why so many festivals blooming across the nation while independent-minded cinemas such as the Alliance are fading faster than a French Canadian's Florida tan?

The questions may be many but the answers are few. Certainly more films are being made because more films can be made. Costs are going down while somebody somewhere is ponying up enough to get low-budget indie films produced. So there's more product available for film festivals to show. But then why are the independent cinemas dying off? Basically because the corporate entertainment industry (a.k.a. Hollywood) has a death grip on motion-picture distribution and exhibition. Frankly, my dear, Hollywood suits don't give a damn who finances or produces a picture, as long as they control what gets released and how. And they are very good at what they do. Given enough cash and a big enough star, a studio can market a limp-noodle loser like Erin Brockovitch and bring in $100 million without much trouble. And if one film doesn't work, they'll yank it off the big screens and on to video, while yet another media-basted turkey takes its place. Indies, true indies, those not backed and hyped by studio/media conglomerate distribution, don't have a chance in such a universe.

Here come the brides, to Herman, U.S.A.
Here come the brides, to Herman, U.S.A.
Here come the brides, to Herman, U.S.A.
Here come the brides, to Herman, U.S.A.

Details

Herman, U.S.A. screens at 3:00 p.m. Sunday, October 22; Bro screens 9:00 p.m. Wednesday, October 18, and Friday, October 20, at Regal South Beach Cinema, 1100 Lincoln Rd, Miami Beach; 305-373-1562. The films also will be shown numerous times, along with Blue Moon, at the main venue, Galleria Cinema, 2630 E Sunrise Blvd, Fort Lauderdale, between November 1 and 12; call 800-745-4621.

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So if independent cinemas are dying off, where do indie films find an audience? Obvious answer: the film festivals. That may seem a good thing from an audience point of view -- lots of interesting new films available at the same event, albeit for a short time. But many, if not most, indie filmmakers look at film festivals with apprehension. The great hope is that a film fest opens the doors for critical appreciation, public response, and a distribution deal. The great fear and increasingly the great truth is that film festivals are the bone yards of the film business, where independent films stagger out to die, undistributed and ignored.

Still the indie films keep coming. And many offer quality casts and creative staffs, helmed by competent filmmakers. Take the first two of the following three independents, which will be playing as part of the Fort Lauderdale event.

Herman, U.S.A.
Think back, way back, to the ancient days of five years ago, when the wire services hyped the story of some bachelor farmers, 78 in number, who ran an ad in several newspapers hoping to lure eligible women to their one-horse town, name of Herman, Minnesota. The response, duly noted by the sneering media, was a tidal wave of femininity as more than 1000 hopeful women descended on Herman from 34 states and 4 foreign nations, all in search of a few good men. That's the stranger-than-fiction-based-on-fact premise of Herman, U.S.A., a good-natured comedy featuring some of the same qualities that made its Midwestern setting famous: likable characters, an upbeat charm, and not many surprises.

The action begins where much small-town life does: at the local diner. That's where the middle-age bachelor pals huddle over coffee and complain about the dearth of eligible women in their town. Sad-sack Sigurd (Wally Dunn), with a droopy mustache and a bad comb-over, certainly is no catch. Neither is the snarky druggist, Vern (Richard Wharton), nor their big-bellied farmer pals. But their cheerful buddy Dennis (Michael O'Keefe) comes up with the scheme to lure women to Herman via the ads and a big community bash. The result is pandemonium when word gets out, and marriage-minded maids hit the town in force.

Writer/director Bill Semans, a long-time theater producer in the Twin Cities, takes a multistory narrative approach to his film, tracking the triumphs and foibles (mostly the latter) of all his hapless Romeos during their weekend fest. Much of these goings-on are rather predictable or altogether too easy or both. Though Sigurd and Vern meet with disappointment during the wild singles bash, Dennis finds instant bliss in the person of a sexy blond newscaster, unaware that local gal Dorrie (Enid Graham) pines away for him. Other story lines include a sexy senior who meets his matronly match, and a shy farmer who meets an even shyer middle-age virgin who's ready to take the plunge. Another farmer falls for -- whaddya know -- a sardonic black woman from Chicago. All these subplots offer considerable charm but not much conflict or dimension. Like many a Midwesterner, Semans seems genuinely afraid of causing a fuss. Other than the comedic bachelor dilemma, there are no problems in Disneyesque Herman: no poverty, no alcoholism, no drugs, no depression, nothing that gets in the way of feel-good Americana. Even the interracial romance is portrayed as odd-couple charm, as locals gawk and cluck a bit. There never is heard a discouraging word among the Herman yeomanry. Too bad though. This story could use more shadings and complexities. You've got your good guys and a couple of bad guys (played mostly for laughs), and the good guys win, to the surprise of no one.

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